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Online giving sees growth in use ­— and generosity

By Gregg Brekke and Robyn Davis Sekula | Presbyterians Today

It’s the way of the world these days, isn’t it? We expect everything to be available with the click of a mouse or tap of our thumb. We click and ship our way through Christmas. We order groceries online and pick them up without ever venturing inside a store. We even support our favorite nonprofit organizations through an online gift on Giving Tuesday — an opportunity for holiday shoppers to be altruistic after their Black Friday and Cyber Monday retail indulgences.

On Giving Tuesday 2018, Presbyterians gave over $105,500 to missions and ministries through the Presbyterian Mission Agency, including unrestricted giving. While it was a tremendous outpouring of generosity on just one day, what was noteworthy was that 20 percent were first-time donors.

According to Rosemary Mitchell, senior director for mission engagement and support for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, online giving to Presbyterian mission continues to increase annually. In 2014, Presbyterians contributed 4,895 gifts, totaling a bit over $1 million. In 2018, 7,961 gifts were made, totaling just over $1.7 million. Mitchell says that the Presbyterian Giving Catalog has driven much of the increase in online giving.

“Although the majority of giving continues to be by check sent by mail, we know it is critically important to provide online access. It will continue to increase dramatically with the generational shift,” she said.

But what about online giving in the local church? Congregations can sometimes be slow to adapt to new technology. Offering online giving allows members of their community to give anytime the spirit moves them, and not just during the few seconds that the offering plate passes in front of them on Sunday morning.

Thanks to the Presbyterian Foundation, churches have an option to offer online giving that can allow people to be flexible and generous at the same time.

“Our Ministry Partnership Funds have become one of the most popular services we offer congregations and ministries,” said Tom Taylor, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in interest and use of these funds, mainly because it is how Presbyterians and many other Christians want to support causes they love, including their churches. It’s a genuine convenience and helps both the churches and their members practice generosity and faithful stewardship in a way that makes sense for them.”

The Foundation has offered Ministry Partnership Funds since 2013. These funds enable online giving. A church, ministry or mid council organization enrolls in the program by filling out a few sheets of paperwork. The Foundation sets up the fund, and once it is created online, the church or organization simply adds a button to its website that allows donors to click on it and give.

The church then gets an ACH deposit (automatic electronic deposit) from the Foundation. The Foundation handles all of the back end, sending a letter to the donor acknowledging the gift and sending statements at the end of the year.

“It runs so smoothly,” said Deborah Marx, financial administrator of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. “What I like about it now is that every month I know it’s going to come in as an ACH deposit. I enter it on our ledger. I can pull reports when I need to do so. I really like it.”

Online giving on the rise

It’s no secret that charitable giving via electronic funds transfer and credit cards is on the rise. According to the Bethesda, Maryland-based Nonprofits Source, online charitable giving grew from $19.2 billion in 2012 to over $31 billion in 2017 and was forecast to exceed $35 billion in 2018.

Carol Hickman collects the offering at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. In addition to traditional offering plates, East Liberty also uses online giving services from the Presbyterian Foundation. Craig Thompson

Churches have seen a similar increase in online and electronic giving. Nonprofits Source notes that 49 percent of all church donations in 2017 were given via electronic means. Furthermore, when surveyed by the group, 60 percent of church participants said they were willing to give to their churches digitally.

Presbyterian church pastors have also seen growth in online giving. The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed is the senior pastor at Decatur Presbyterian Church, an 800-member, multigenerational church in the east Atlanta metro area that has used services from the Presbyterian Foundation to collect online donations since 2012.

The dollars contributed via online giving comprise roughly 5 percent of the total annual giving to the church, a small but growing number, Speed says. The ease of use by the congregation and finance staff makes it more than worthwhile.

“We’re trying to make sure we give people options,” he said. “We put a QR code [a type of barcode that can be read by smartphone cameras] in the bulletin and it ties into our giving page on the website. We’re able to use a couple of different funds. One of the keys for us is we can tell when someone sends a gift to operations, a capital campaign or a special gift. It’s not just one size fits all, and that’s helpful for us.”

Big growth in 2018

The Foundation saw a significant increase in the number of online giving funds in 2018. By Dec. 31, 2018, churches and ministries had started 488 new accounts, up from 256 new accounts in 2017. Through Nov. 30, $5.1 million had been given through those accounts for 2018, up from $3.8 million for all of 2017.

The use of Ministry Partnership Funds is growing rapidly because they meet a need, says Robert Hay Jr., the Presbyterian Foundation ministry relations officer for the Southeast. Plus, the accounts are easy to set up. Churches fill out the paperwork, put a “donate now” button on their website and the Foundation takes care of the rest. Once all of the information is received at the Foundation, the funds can be ready for use in about a week.

“It’s an absolute need,” Hay said. “It’s the first thing I do, the first thing I present, in churches that are looking to expand giving opportunities in the congregation.”

The Rev. Tracey Henry, pastor of Clinton Presbyterian Church in Clinton, New Jersey, says about 20 percent of her church’s offering comes in online. The biggest change they’ve seen is year-round support from those who are away in the summer.

“That’s probably one of the major advantages,” Henry said. “This gives people the opportunity to support our mission and ministry even if they’re traveling or on vacation. It has lessened financial anxiety overall and that in and of itself helps us do mission and ministry better.”

Changing methods of giving

Keeping up with the needs of churches is important to the Foundation, says Vanessa Elkin, vice president of operations at the Presbyterian Foundation.

“Online giving was really a needed piece,” she said. “Some of it is generational. It’s the way we shop at Amazon; it’s the way we pay our bills online. And it has caught up to our congregations. It’s the way they want to do things, too. Our younger people don’t even carry a checkbook.”

Hay has been a proponent of Ministry Partnership Funds since their inception and sees them as a way to invite a newer generation of church members into financial stewardship.

“The majority of givers are going to give the way they always have, whether that’s via check or automated electronic funds transfer,” he said, adding that Ministry Partnership Funds “aren’t for everyone,” but they do make it easier for young people who manage all of their finances online.

“When the plate comes around, people are making a calculation on what they can give,” Hay said. “If the largest bill they have in their wallet is a 20, that’s what they’ll contribute. But we know the average online gift through the Foundation is $160. It’s not constrained by how much cash they may need for lunch.”

Low costs and flexibility

The process of enrolling in the online giving program is quite easy and involves collecting banking and tax information and assigning administrative roles, Elkin says. Once the system is configured, an online giving link is available for the church or ministry to use in about a week. On-site and phone support is available throughout the process and Elkin’s staff is on call following the setup to answer questions.

A flat rate of 2 percent is deducted from each donation to support the program, which is much lower than other church-centric online donation platforms and less than half the cost of commercial credit processing systems or popular online services such as PayPal. Monthly transfers of the balances are made to the church or ministry and include any interest earned.

In addition to regular recurring contributions or tithing, the Foundation can set up long-term giving opportunities that help fund mission projects, capital needs or larger expenditures, as was done for Decatur Presbyterian Church.

“The Ministry Partnership Fund system has encouraged people to set up regular online giving through their bank,” Speed said. “It provides them a way to give other than a check and has broadened people’s thoughts on how to contribute to the church.”

For Mitchell, online giving is just another opportunity to encourage and nurture discipleship.

“Generosity is an expression of discipleship and attests to each person’s and congregation’s commitment to God’s mission. It’s important that we recognize the demands on people’s lives,” she said. “While encouraging and nurturing discipleship, we also must acknowledge new habits and vehicles for giving.”

Gregg Brekke is a freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. He most recently served as editor of Presbyterian News Service. Robyn Davis Sekula is vice president of communications and marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation.

Learn more

If you would like to set up a Ministry Partnership Fund for your congregation, contact the Presbyterian Foundation to find the ministry relations officer in your area. Go to

Offering plates and envelopes: Relics of the past?

When the offering plate comes around on a Sunday morning, what are people who give online to do? Churches have grappled with this question. At Clinton Presbyterian Church in Clinton, New Jersey, 20 percent of offerings are received online. The Rev. Tracey Henry says members of her congregation told her they felt guilty letting the plate pass them by without participating, even though they gave online. So, the church created small, laminated cards that state “I give online” that can be placed in the offering plate on Sunday morning.

When the offering is counted after the service, the cards are collected and placed back in the pew racks, ready for another Sunday. “It gives people an opportunity to still participate in the offering in a tangible way,” Henry said.

And, as online giving rises, what will become of those boxes of offering envelopes that are either personally handed out at the start of a new year, or find their way on a table in the narthex with each member’s last name written on them?

According to Dennis Harrold, director of the Hubbard Press, which has been supplying churches with pew envelopes and boxed offering envelope sets for years, orders for the envelopes have not seen a dramatic decline.

“There are some churches reducing the number of boxed sets, but we have also seen churches who did scale back, return and request the traditional envelopes again,” he said.

Harrold, who has been with Hubbard for 41 years, credits the ability to customize church offering envelopes with the steadfast business in the age of online giving.

“We can create whatever a church needs. We can put envelopes in the boxed set that have printed on them the option for a person to mark ‘I gave electronically,’ which then provides the person with something to place into the offering plate,” he said.

For churches that consider doing away with traditional offering envelopes to save money, Harrold says an envelope asking for a donation to offset the costs of the box can be included.

Cost, though, should not be a factor, as Harrold sees the offering envelope as a way to encourage stewardship. Providing a boxed set of offering envelopes is also a nice way to make new members feel included, that they are now part of something bigger, Harrold says.

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— Donna Frischknecht Jackson

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